Futuristic digital man, recovering PR guy, magic beansman, aspiring know-it-all. Chief Strategy Officer at Northern Army. More...

Starting out in PR

Last week, I spent a few hours talking to the students of the faculty of communications at Carleton University about public relations, web strategy and getting a job.  The night was segmented into six half-hour round tables, so while most of what I said started to blur together by hour two, I found myself answering a lot of the same questions.  So, in the interest of helping out those just embarking on their career in PR, I thought I’d summarize what I said, in a much less rambling fashion.

  • Right out of university, think “career” not “job.” You’ll be tempted to go for the highest paying job right out of school, but look farther than salary when you’re considering where to work.  Your first few years out of school is a time to invest in your experience.  You can come out of it with a few bucks more, or you can come out of it with a marketable skill set that can ultimately earn you more.  If it’s between a job that doesn’t pay well but offers a lot of experience and a job that pays more but makes you a glorified file clerk, take the lower pay.  It doesn’t seem like it, but you’ll be that much closer to that big paycheque.
  • Experience trumps education. Almost everyone that night asked me if they should take a PR certificate.  My answer?  Those programs are often very good, but they’ll set you back two to three years, and ten to fifteen grand without guaranteeing you anything.  Education is important, but if you already have a degree, commit to learning on your own.  Read voraciously, and do everything you can to get more experience – volunteer, intern, or start something of your own.  Personally, I would hire someone who has actual experience over someone with a few more years of college any day.
  • If you can’t write, you’re useless to me. Blunt, perhaps, but it’s the truth.  If you’re starting out in PR, you should be writing as much as you possibly can, whether it’s in a personal journal, a novel or a blog.  You need to learn how to write like a journalist, like an advertiser, like a CEO and like an engineer.  A good PR writer has no writing style – he or she can adapt to the situation seamlessly.  The only way to get there is through practice.  As my thesis advisor was fond of saying “the first million words is the hardest.”
  • Network. Find out the events that are going on and go to them.  Find out who’s an expert on what you’re interested in and follow them.  Meet people, but don’t do it looking for a job – do it to learn.
  • Don’t stop learning. 90% of the job of working at an agency is the ability to learn.  When I was starting out, I had to go from being an expert on export tariffs to hospital staffing to carpet off-gassing emissions in a single day.  You need to take subjects you know nothing about and become an expert on them quickly, and the only way to do that is to be good at learning.

I don’t know (and neither do you.)

Q. What copy will perform best on my website?
A. I don’t know.

Q. What page should I direct search traffic to in order to get the highest conversion rate?
A. No clue.

Q. What time of day will get the best open rate on my email marketing campaign?
A. Dunno.

A big part of any consulting-style job, be it advertising, PR, business process or any other role in which the central function is to incite action across a broad group of people, is answering questions. To be successful, you need to be part futurist, part expert and part hand holder and teller that everything’s going to be okay-er.  But the reality of this type of work – especially that which deals with newer or unproven media or channels – is that sometimes the answer to the question the client is asking is “I have no idea.”

But that’s not much comfort to clients.

So, we answer the question based on our experiences, our intuition, our understanding of media and consumers, and we guess… just a little bit.  But more and more, the guesswork is coming out of the profession.  We have access to analytics, measurement systems and tracking that communicators have never before had access to, and for the most part, they’re inexpensive and easy to integrate. We can tell where our best-converting sales leads are coming from, what types of posts have the best engagement, and when the best time to send out our email communications is – all from easily collected real-time data.

So why are we still guessing?

Part of the reason is that advertising people have always been regarded in part as soothsayers. It was this confidence in our knowledge of the medium, the message and the huddled masses yearning to be sold to that garnered multi-million dollar ad budgets. Conversely, it’s the expertise and ego that got CMOs through the ranks to where they are today.  So where is the incentive for anyone in this equation to ever utter the phrase “I don’t know?”

As a society, we’ve always had an odd fascination with mediums and psychics who pretend to be able to see the future, telling us, to our amazement, what would happen to us, would we find love, how we would die. Of course, these were all parlour tricks based on intuition and a controlled situation. And that’s exactly what we’re doing when we predict what colour “buy” button will perform best, or where to put the call to action on the landing page. Our experience, knowledge and understanding of the media combines with our intuition to make an educated guess, but that’s usually all it is.

If, on the other hand, both the client and the agency embraces the fact that they don’t know the answer – that’s when real answers can be found.  We can A/B test copy to see which performs best.  We can analyze data to deduce why people are coming to our site.  We can built multiple landing pages for multiple keywords and choose the one to go with based only on which one makes the client more money.

Of course, it’s impossible to test everything, which is why we rely on experts in the first place.  If you’re Google, you’ll test 42 shades of blue to determine what colour your background should be, but that’s impractical at best, and an impediment to creative thinking at worst.  Instead, look to solve problems by focusing on the most probable solutions (based on intuition), and determining which one works the best (based on numbers).  It’s not as sexy as a crystal ball, but it’s certainly better for business.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Frogman!

Can we stop calling this social media?

I hit a turning point with a long-term client recently.  For a while, we’d been having a regular “social media” meeting with the team, where we would talk about analytics, SEO, web design, content, email marketing, as well as things like blogs and Twitter.  Finally, after all these meetings, what social media really was clicked for them – and we changed our approach from a social media strategy to a web strategy to a consumer relations strategy.  What had started as a perceived need for blogs and Facebook had turned into something very different – and went from being an additional part of their marketing to a core part of their business strategy.

Of course, it wasn’t the tools that made the difference.  It was the understanding of the consumer that ultimately led to an organizational shift, and a fairly major change in how they communicate with their consumers.  It was the exercise of communicating in a more real way, more regularly, and allowing the people they’ve been talking to to talk back.

The reality is, for all the talk about social media – there’s really no such thing.  There is only communication, and while our academic pursuit of what we call social media has certainly advanced the practice of communication as a whole, social media is nothing but a buzzword, a marketing ploy, a big ol’ bottle of snake oil that a slick-talking sideshow act is selling for a dollar to cure what ails you.

This isn’t to take away from any agency that has a real social media expertise (as opposed to a 20-year old intern who knows all about this Facebook thing) – the agency of the future will understand those channels as well as the agencies of the past understood television and print.  The successful agencies will understand how to make all of these media work together to achieve a goal.  Sadly, a number of agencies will achieve a temporary success tricking clients into thinking they understand these technologies and communities, but that gold rush is running out.

If you want to communicate effectively, you need to use the channels that your consumers use – that’s marketing 101.  If that means Facebook, Twitter, blogs, or some obscure web application, then that’s what you should use, but it all needs to be part of an integrated approach with a real goal in mind.  There’s nothing wrong with playing with new tech, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that it’s a strategy.

Creative Commons License photo credit: webtreats

Social Media 201 – Class is in session

When we all first started talking about this whole new “social media” thing, our biggest problem was the need to explain what exactly it was, why it was important, and show how it was going to change the face of business.  Today, there’s still a need to help people understand the basics, but there’s an increasing need to move beyond the fundamentals and start thinking about how social media can be improved for those who have been working at it for a couple of years.

That’s why I’m extremely excited that one of my favourite bloggers, Collin Douma, Proximity BBDO’s VP of Social Media, and all around great guy is coming to Ottawa to speak at the next Social Media Breakfast, and that his topic of discussion is focused on the elements of social media for the people who are already doing it, and understand the need to join the conversation.

From the talk’s description:

Social Media is changing the game . . . We get it already.

Now what?

Where does if fit in the organization? What skill sets best determine a social media lead? Do you hire an expert, an agency or go it alone? Do we focus on the one-offs, or look at this as a discipline over the long haul. What sort of commitment does it take to really make an impact with your brand in the social space?

You can read Collin’s blog at Radical Trust and follow him on Twitter as @collindouma, but you definitely don’t want to miss him at Social Media Breakfast Ottawa #13 on December 3.

As always, the event will be held in the offices of Gowling Lafleur Henderson, our wonderful season sponsor.  If you want to register, you can do so at http://smbottawa13.eventbrite.com.  Hope to see you there!

Ignite comes to Ottawa

Thousands of Twitter messages a day, hundreds of blog posts in Google Reader, folders full of research reports.  Sound familiar?  Being active in social media usually means being a glutton for information, regardless of the medium.  If you’re a dyed-in-the wool knowledge addict, then I’ve got an event for you.

Ignite – an event consisting of a number of speakers, each with 5 minutes and 20 slides to enlighten the audience on a particular topic.  Anything is fair game – from business to cooking to the arts.

Ignite was started in Seattle in 2006 by Brady Forrest and Bre Pettis. Since then, hundreds of 5 minute talks have been given across the world. There are thriving Ignite communities in Seattle, Portland, Paris, and NYC.

We’ve brought the event to Ottawa, and on November 12, 2009, The Velvet Room in the Byward Market will host our first evening of knowledge sharing – and we’ve got a great lineup to start:

Adele McAlear – Death and Digital Legacy
Jairus Pryor – How I Stole $15M from the Canadian Mint
Ian Graham – Coworking
Sue Murphy – Online Community
David Akin – Media and Technology


Kris Joseph – Shakespeare and Oral Culture
Scott Annan – You Inc.: We’re all freelancers now
Nick Charney – Public Service Renewal in 5 Minutes
Al Connors – Improv and Everyday Life

Sound like something that speaks to your inner knowledge addict?  Then all you need to do to attend is head on over to http://igniteottawa.eventbrite.com and register for your tickets.  It’s going to be a great night, and hopefully, the start of a new tradition in Ottawa.

Doing a little good

I think most people I know are like me in that they wish that given all of the negative news we hear every day, that we could do more to help.  More to make the world greener, more peaceful – in general, we want to do more change the world, but we’re not sure where to start.

My friend Faisal recently had the same epiphany – and his response was to create something that would not only allow him to make a bit of a difference, but to make it that much easier for everyone to do even a little bit of extra good for the world.

His idea was to create a plugin for your web browser called DoGooder, that allows you to alter the ads you see on any website, and instead display ads from charities, green organizations and advocacy groups.  It allows organizations to get their message out to a plugged-in audience, and on top of that, 50% of profits are donated to green charities.

Is making a passive donation to charity enough?  No, probably not.  But it’s a start, and more than that, a constant reminder to do a little more to make the world a better place, while doing a little to help organizations that are doing just that.

The plugin takes about 3 seconds to install, and works on most browsers.  Check it out at http://www.dogoodhq.com

Tara Hunt comes to Social Media Breakfast Ottawa

The room at the Ottawa Social Media Breakfasts is always packed, but this month, I suspect that tickets will go faster than usual.  This September 16, fresh off her triumphant return to the Great White North, Tara Hunt will be joining us to talk about social media, building communities, and her book, the Whuffie Factor.

If you want to come (and I strongly suggest you do), then just head on over to the EventBrite page for SMBOttawa, and buy your ticket.  Remember, that $10 admission goes directly to bringing great speakers like Tara to Ottawa.

Hope to see you there!

Your anus is too tight

One of the best books I’ve read in a while is one called Emergency by Neil Strauss.  It chronicles his quest to become completely self sufficient in case of a natural disaster, getting lost in the woods, or some other sort of apocolyptic event that results in a Mad Max kind of society where Mel Gibson rides around the ruins of civilization wearing animal skin and hunting for gasoline.

As such, he finds it necessary to learn how to ride a motorcycle, despite the fact that he’d never even driven a standard in his life.  After a number of stalls and burnouts, his instructor informed him of his problem – he was driving with his sphincter clenched, and that until he learned to relax, all the lessons in the world wouldn’t help his ability to ride a motorcycle.

The notion immediately made sense to me.  I studied jiu-jitsu for about four years, and while I was fairly technically proficient, I was always called out by my instructor for being “too stiff”.  Jiu-jistu is a martial art that’s entirely based in fluid motion in which the entire body works together.  A punch begins in your feet – a throw is entirely controlled by your stance.  Like the force of a whip comes from the energy transferred along its length, the fluidity of motion is what allows a 215 pound male to be thrown through the air by a 13-year old girl (true story).  Introducing tension in the fluid motion interrupts the flow, and weakens the entire stance.

The point of this rather long-winded story is this: one of the biggest problems I see in organizations that want to get into social media is this stiffness, which is usually one borne of fear.  Fear that someone will say the wrong thing, that the organization will be criticized, that someone out there will use your words against you.  But, like tension in a throw weakens your stance, tension in your communications weakens your message.  The result is seen all over the web in the form of sanitized marketing-speak, safe (read: boring) blog posts, and corporate communiques that no one in their right mind could possibly find interesting.

This isn’t to say that you don’t need to be careful what you say on the web – far from it.  However, just like you need to learn to ride a motorcycle or hip toss an attacker, you need to learn and explore social media by doing it.  By engaging in the community, by making mistakes, and by allowing yourself to communicate fluidly.

I completely understand the fear and trepidation that comes before submitting a press release for distribution, an email marketing piece for delivery or sending a large print job to press.  The thing is, social media doesn’t have the same gravity of these things.  Mistakes are easily corrected, and as long as what you’re saying and doing in these realms doesn’t fly in the face of the community or step on ethical guidelines, you’ll recover – and you’ll learn.

Posting something uninteresting on Twitter is not a failure.  Missing opportunities to engage customers in dialogue because of a fear of saying the wrong thing definitely is.  Just relax.

When was the last time you updated your crisis plan?

Crisis preparedness has always been an important part of communications, but it’s especially so now that practically every employee, customer and competitor has access to a global publishing platform.  But even those companies who have been through the planning and training may be left completely unprepared in times of a real crisis if they’re not ready for a completely different communications  landscape.

So, when did you last update your crisis plan?  If it’s more than three years ago, then chances are that it’s woefully out of date.  Think back to 2006.  Facebook was only beginning to gain popularity.  Twitter hadn’t even seen the light of day.  YouTube had not yet been acquired by Google, and there were still those predicting its failure.

Now, look at the landscape today.  News is breaking through Twitter long before it reaches the cable news networks.  Online video is one of the most popular online activities, with dozens of video sharing sites now occupying the space that was predicted to be a non-entity.

Time has always been of the essence when it comes to responding to a crisis, but that time window has been cut dramatically shorter in the past few years.  The fundamentals still apply, but we have an entirely new toolset at our disposal, and if your crisis preparedness plan still focuses on dealing solely with the mainstream media, you’re ignoring a major channel that has the potential to turn even the smallest spark into a wildfire.

Things have changed dramatically in the last half of the decade.  Crisis preparedness is no longer simply a phone tree and a dark site – it’s an entire playbook that needs to be rehearsed and refined in order to communicate effectively in times of crisis.  The messages may not have changed, but the process has, and missing that fact is a huge communications failure.

Social media isn’t for every organization, I’ll admit.  However, for any organization where crisis preparedness is crucial (which is most), social media absolutely needs to be considered.  News spreads through social media, and it spreads at an alarming speed.  Consider the US Airways flight that crashed into the Hudson river, and the fact that the first photos were seen on Twitter only 10 minutes after takeoff.  The time for dismissing social media as a niche activity is over.  You can only ignore a raging river to the point where it sweeps you into the ocean.

What’s driving your culture change?

Since I started Fat Canary, I’ve talked to a lot of organizations about social media. One of the trends I’ve seen over the past year or so has been an increased need to bring social media into the organization – no surprise there. The interesting thing has been their reason as to WHY they want to bring social media into the organization.

Perhaps we as PR bloggers and social media pundits have sold our point of view too well over the past four or five years – frustrated by those organizations who “just don’t get it,” but more and more, I’m seeing smart and well-intentioned marketers throwing aside their usual focus on results and driving revenue – you know, that pesky stuff that marketing is actually ABOUT – to invest in social media because either a) their higher ups demand it without understanding it, or b) because the see it as “the next big thing.”

Don’t get me wrong – I think social media can drive excellent results for a lot of different types of organizations, assuming their willing to accept the risk and the culture change that it requires, but not every organization is right for social media. Some require major process and staffing changes that they’re just not willing to make for social media. Some already have the right culture without even realizing it, and with the help of their agency, can dive in and make a serious investment.

The question, when it comes to change, is very well articulated by my friend Joe Boughner.

It seems like I’m splitting hairs but I think they’re important hairs to be split. The tools shouldn’t be leading the strategies. The strategies must define the tools. If your business or association isn’t prepared to be conversational or open, stop trying to get them on Twitter.

I’ve spoken to a lot of organizations who wanted a social media strategy, only to find that what they really needed from us was a solid communications strategy. Sometimes, these included social media components, and sometimes they didn’t, but the important thing is that they were led by outcomes, and not tactics.

I think every organization should explore and understand social media, and that most would benefit from taking the intitial steps of at least listening to what’s going on in their space, but not everyone needs a Facebook page, just like not everyone needs a billboard in Times Square. Marketing is all about understanding your consumer, and bringing relevant information to them while enabling them to inform their tribes about your brand or product. Stop thinking in terms of new media and old media, and understand what your consumer really wants from you – then give it to them.